When Mom realized I had come for her daughter, she did the motherly thing and called the California Highway Patrol, demanding my arrest on the grounds of transporting a minor for immoral purposes. Meanwhile, Abby and I slid out the front door and began a promenade, which turned into a hitchhike over the Sierra Nevada, figuring, correctly, that the Bay Area was blown. We crossed into Nevada at Devil’s Gate, which turned the crime into transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes.
My $7 was spent by nightfall. It was cold. We camped at 6500 feet, used newspapers, dirty clothes, and leaves as blankets, fed the fire, and told each other that everything was going to be all right.
It took two days to travel the 151 miles from Columbia to Hawthorne, Nevada. This was 1968, which meant we were exotica to locals. For this reason, we set up our hitchhiking post one mile south of town. I told Abby, “On all accounts, let us not excite the natives.” Aside from the odd beer can thrown from passing pickup trucks, and the deputy sheriff, who drove by every hour to order us out of town, our deployment was a diplomatic triumph.
But, the heat! Motherfucker! No shade, no wind, no trees, shrubs, or flowers. I found out later that it takes living in the desert for an entire year before you see what’s in front of you, instead of the absence of yellows, reds, blues, and greens.
That day, the universe was pancake brown, occasionally relieved by motley mesquite trees and balls of dead, dirt-gray sagebrush. Adding another layer of discomfort was the silence. No breeze blowing. No birds squawking. No water rushing. No squirrels running along tree branches or dogs walking over dry leaves. Just…nothing.
Two, three, four, five, six hours. On average, one car every 19 minutes. An automobile emerges, a black beetle on the northern horizon, then grows to the size of a child’s toy. Due to the pavement’s reflected heat, the child’s toy takes on a shimmering, liquid form. Lastly, comes the horror as that shimmering vision mutates into a gigantic, straight-from-the-magazine-ads, ugly-piece-of-shit American automobile. Often — with husband driving and wife riding shotgun — a Chrysler or Buick or Mercury would slow as it approached our redoubt, causing an explosion of hope in our hearts. We jumped up and down, like children unable to contain their ecstasy. The vehicle would crawl along at ten mph, as if entering an animal park, and, drawing alongside us, windows rolled up, air-conditioner on high, we’d witness a woman’s clean white hand reach toward the passenger door, find its lock, and ram the knob down while hubby hit the accelerator.
So, you understand why we froze when the big, black Caddy stopped. The Caddy was a hearse, with purple window curtains drawn around sides and rear, and it stood at rest 20 feet from our backpacks.
“All, fucking right!”
A double-time jog to the hearse’s front door. Stow gear and climb in, remembering to observe hitchhiking etiquette, female in the center seat, male by the passenger door. Happiness, thy name is Jarrod.
Jarrod Pridham: a blocky, blond-headed 26-year-old, 5'10" of farm boy, born and raised in Valentine, Nebraska. His dad grew corn, soybeans, sorghum, and winter wheat. Jarrod had two brothers and one sister, didn’t care for the sister much, which didn’t matter as she’d died of bone cancer six years ago. Jarrod dropped out of high school. He wanted to join the Navy but was turned down, didn’t know why, but it was all for the good, because his uncle then invited him to Las Vegas. His uncle was a cement foreman at a big construction company and said there was plenty of work and to come on out. So, Jarrod moved to Las Vegas. He never did work for his uncle, but drove a taxi for a while, went to LA and stayed with a cousin, moved back to Vegas, didn’t like sports, but occasionally followed baseball on the radio because he liked the announcer’s voice. ’Course, it was traveling that he loved. He was a traveling kind of guy, which “is why this job is so goddamn bitchin’.”
We learned the foregoing within five minutes, three minutes past the moment we understood that Jarrod was wrecked, fucked-up on speed.
At present, Jarrod worked for a Las Vegas mortuary: when a wealthy Las Vegan died out of state, he was dispatched to haul the carcass home. The carcass currently resting in the back had been retrieved from Seattle two days ago. We pieced this morsel of information together between Jarrod’s relentless monologues celebrating life on the road. “HEEEEY! You look like party people. YOU WOULDN’T BELIEVE HOW MUCH PUSSY I GET IN THIS THING! I’ve partied all the way from Seattle. PARTY-FUCKING-PARTY-FUCKING- PARTY-PARTY. FUCK-FUCK!”
It’s 315 miles from Hawthorne to Las Vegas, and Abby and I counted off every one of them. We were inside a steel holding tank with a guy who’d been alone for the last 50 hours, downing speed and communing with the dead.
At the first red light in downtown Las Vegas, I flung open the passenger door, yanked Abby into daylight, likewise our backpacks, and fled across Fremont Street.
Great balls of fire! Free in downtown Las Vegas, in front of Benny Binion’s Horseshoe Casino. In the mid-’60s, you could always rake in a few bucks by spare-changing, with the caveat that such activity must occur within designated areas. Begging was a picturesque novelty in collegiate America, but get yourself 30 miles from either ocean, or four city blocks from a university, and panhandling was on a par with selling babies door-to-door.
It took 35 minutes to hustle that first bit of change. Christ, where could we find a nest of liberals in casino world? A phone booth beckoned. I picked up the directory, began turning pages and muttering, “Liberals, liberals. Where are you? There’s got to be one.” I leafed past bakers, cocktail lounges, hardware stores, optometrists, and then, “Whoa, here’s a university.”